Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Unspoken, Undone; Spoken, Done

There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.
Hodding Carter

This is a pretty long post, but it means a lot to me, and it might be worth a few minutes of your time.

Twenty years ago, I asked my father what he'd like to see me draw. I was, no doubt, full of my talent and certain of my ability to draw anything he asked of me. Perhaps it would be Batman, crouching and ready to leap on some poor bad guy. Or maybe Captain America, taking out some ratzi. Whatever he'd ask, I'd be ready.

"Draw me a bird."

Sorry, what? A bird? what kind of comic artist draws a bird? That's pretty boring, I thought, and a waste of my massive talent as an artist. But, I humored him- there was an image of a dove on one of the hymnals at church. I drew the outline, added where I thought the eyes should go, and some feet, and handed to him. There's his bird. Maybe now he'll ask for something cool.

"You didn't take any time with that."

Well, he was right- it was so boring! But he laughed a little as he said it, and took it from me, and that was that. Sure, I did a lousy job with it, and I knew it, but whatever- it wasn't that important.

As the years went by, that moment would pop into my head- at the most random times, without warning or explanation. And I'd think about what I'd done (or not done), and think on what I could do if I really tried to do something for him. God knows, I'd gotten a bit better at drawing since that first picture. I'd get close enough to look at a book for some pictures, but invariably it would drift back out of my mind. Off and on, now and again, for nearly twenty years. Last year, in the midst of my watercolor class, I thought to myself, 'finally, I'll get around to painting Dad that picture of that bird- he'd like that, I bet. Not that he'd even remember, all these years later." I found some pictures of birds I liked on the internet, printed them out, and set them aside. 'I'll do it later,' I told myself again, 'when there's more time.'

But there's never enough time, is there? No matter how many or how few goals we set ourselves, no matter the difficulty or the simplicity of the challenges we give ourselves, there is just never enough time. Time will always have its way with you, and always leave you broken and bloodied on the ground, wounded by regret and shame and fear. You will look back and think to yourself, 'My God, why did I waste those chances? Why did I set those goals, and do nothing to achieve them? Why didn't I do this one, simple task? Why didn't I even try?"

How often are we given the chance to know that time is about to come calling, to knock on the door and remind you that not all the time in the world is yours? To set aright those things that can be, to not leave unsaid words that need spoken, to not leave undone those actions that need done? Too often, those needed words fall on deaf ears, too often, those needed actions are unseen.

What a terrible gift it is, to hear that knocking, and to know that it's not for you, but for one you love. What a beautiful burden, to hear that knocking, and know that, when the door is finally opened, and you have to say goodbye, that he was able to hear your words, and see your actions. How wonderful, to have these last few minutes, days, hours, years, seconds, and to know you didn't waste them with silence.

All of this spins through my head, driving me nearly insane with sadness and regret. So often, I hold back on words, on actions. Considering how much my silence has cost me in the past, you would think I'd have learned my lesson. But silence, silence of those things I'm afraid to speak of, those questions I'm afraid to ask, has been a longtime companion of mine. Silence is so easy to maintain; words are so hard to come by- once uttered, they cannot be taken back, and their reactions can't be controlled.

But no more. I've learned that there will not always be 'more time'. I have learned that silence can be as impossible to take back as the spoken word.

But I still have time. Thank God, I still have time.

I knew it was time to sit down and look at my list of words unspoken and things undone. I knew that the time wasn't now, but this wake up call we all received was enough to tell me that now was the time; to speak, to not remain silent. To act, to not stay still.

The words- I have so many words- so much to say, how can I possibly say them all in less than a lifetime? In a thousand lifetimes? I thought about all those words, and eventually, I found the ones to say the most, to speak my mind and my heart.

The action- that was easy.

I walked into the room, surprising them both. Mom was sitting in the corner of the room, reading the Sunday paper. He was sitting up, practically lounging in his bed, looking for all the world like he was at home here and just reading another section of the paper. He looked so old there- was this the man who used to carry around hundreds of pounds of equipment like it was a bookbag? But God, he looked so strong there, too- this was the same man who stopped drinking one day because he decided it was time to stop, even though both his father and brother had their lives damaged and cut short by years of alcohol abuse. This is the same man who put up with five heart attacks and a triple bypass and God only knows what else and came back stronger and better than any doctor ever imagined. This is a man who has no idea of what it means to give up. They both gave out little "hey"s of surprised greeting, and I made some dumb comment about him being lazy or something. I gave him a hug, as long a hug and as strong a hug as I could manage, and somehow kept from breaking down and crying on his shoulder. Another big hug and a kiss for Mom, and then we're talking a little bit. The expected stuff: "how are you feeling? Doing alright? What are the doctors saying?", things like that. After a few minutes, Mom asked me what I'd brought; I had the bag with the pictures (stuck inside a couple frames, hopefully to spruce them up a bit) behind my back.

Words were about to fail me; I knew what I wanted to say, what I had to say, but they were leaving me. I felt like such a fool, like an idiot for holding on to this stupid little idea that somehow these stupid pictures would mean anything to him, that he'd even remember, that I'd even be able to say anything about what I wanted to say, that he'd understand what I was really saying to him.

"I don't know if you remember," I began, as I pulled the pictures from the bag. I held them to my chest, now strangely ashamed and proud of them. "But about twenty years ago, I asked you if you wanted me to draw you anything; you probably don't even remember, but you said a bird, and I drew you one and it was crap, and you knew it, and I knew it, and here it is twenty years later, but..."

"Oh, I remember!" he said, with a big smile on his face.

Of course he did. He's my father. And thank God, I am his son.


He seems to really enjoy the pictures; he never actually told me what kind of bird to draw him, so I settled for finding a dramatic picture of a falcon, about to land amongst some bushes or something. Almost as soon as I started drawing it, I realized I had to do something else with it, not just give him a pencil drawing. Since I've become so taken with Photoshop, I thought he would appreciate seeing what I've taught myself to do, artistically, with the computer the same way I could show him what I've taught myself to do with pencils. I know neither he nor Mom really ever "got" what I did with my drawing- they're not big fans of superheroes and comic books. But that never mattered- I never had a shortage of pencils and papers growing up. He took them, and kept them with him for a while, before finally sending them back home with Mom. Less likely to get lost in the shuffle that way. We sat and talked some, more unimportant things. The next day when we went to visit, we sat and talked some, still more unimportant things. Except, in the ways that really matter, they were all important. I got to talk with my Mom and Dad.

He's doing fine, by the way. Once again, he continues to ignore expectations, and makes great progress. He still has a long road ahead of him, but he keeps on the same way he always has- one step at a time, one breath at a time, no giving up. I don't know if I'll ever get to say every word I want to say to him, to do all the things I'd like to do with him- really, do any of us ever have that chance? But I do know that I was finally able to finish this one task for him- and that it says just about everything I needed him to hear.

I'll be going up to visit again this weekend. Just to sit and talk with him some more, and hear what he has to say, and tell him more of those things I want to say. It'll probably be awkward at first, because neither of us are especially good at talking about these 'important' things (I didn't even know if I could write this, but writing to a friend today helped me find my voice). But I'm not going to give up on it, I'm not going to leave more unsaid. Because like I said, he's my father. And I am my father's son.

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